Did you have the heebie-jeebies as income tax day approached this month? If so, you were not alone.
Many people feel anxious when they look at April 15 on the calendar. The symptoms can start weeks, even months, in advance.
This same anxiety can be triggered by other significant events: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays — especially those milestone years that end in zero, such as 30, 40, 50, etc. Even Valentine's Day can bring on discomfort.
But apparently many more of us feel anxious about April 15, and those feelings can result in headache, nervous stomach, irritability or other stress symptoms.
These emotional and physical effects are the result of days of build-up, suggests Ilan Shrira, who has a Ph.D. and is a visiting professor in psychology at the University of Florida.
A key factor to the April 15 anxiety is delay. "Usually, people who procrastinate tend to experience anxiety about things in general," Shrira says.
But this particular anxiety may also arise from the fact that the annual ritual involves personal finances, something many people are hesitant to reveal.
"Financial issues, many times, can be a significant problem," notes Leonard Kirklen, clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida Counseling Center in Tampa.
He agrees that procrastination can be a key stress factor around preparing tax returns. "We tend to procrastinate, repeatedly, on things we don't want to do and don't find pleasurable," Kirklen says.
"For some people, (April 15) can remind them of their lack of resources or that they have resources but poor spending habits . . . In many cases, people don't adequately save.''
He mentions the elephant in the room: "There's always the issue of you can be as honest as you can possibly be, but still there's the possibility of the IRS audit, which is a scary thought."
There are a number of practical ways of dealing with any anxiety — and acknowledging the pattern of behavior that causes anxiety is the first step.
"Prepare for it, don't procrastinate," Shrira advises. "When there are things we don't like, we tend not to think about them. That creates more anxiety."
Shrira suggests making something like tax preparation a positive experience: Reward yourself when it's done, perhaps by going out to dinner.
Another approach, suggests Kirklen, is to place some tax preparation dates on your calendar well ahead of April 15. You don't have to wait for your W-2 to pull together receipts and expenses.
"If you keep it in perspective," Kirklen says, "it's simply another obligation you have to meet . . . It's a hassle, but it need not be traumatic."
In fact, attitude is the key to handling the other stressful days on our calendars. Many people procrastinate around Christmas shopping, thus creating anxiety. Thanksgiving is often stressful because of the tradition of spending the holiday with relatives with whom we may have issues.
Birthdays can be reminders of our mortality. Even wedding anniversaries and Valentine's Day — celebrations of our love for significant others — can come with the anxiety about meeting expectations.
Kirklen warns against over-emphasizing any of these big days.
"Our emotions stem from our perception of a situation, so it's important to monitor our negative thinking. April 15 need not be more stressful than any other time of the year. It's how we label it."
Fred. W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg.